Legal Action over Police Surveillance of Journalists

21st December, 2014

Police film me during a Media Workers Against The War demonstration

photo © David Hoffman          

Six NUJ members are at the centre of a landmark legal case, which is shining a light on the levels of surveillance employed by the state on journalists.

Comedian and broadcaster Mark Thomas, London Freelance Branch Member Adrian Arbib, and London Photographers Branch members Jules Mattsson, David Hoffman, Jess Hurd and Jason Parkinson have launched a legal action on unnecessary intrusion into their private lives.

The action being brought against the Metropolitan Police with the support of the NUJ is a Judicial Review, not aimed at obtaining compensation but intended to show that it is an unlawful practice, which undermines the freedom of the press. The journalists hope to reveal the extent of the surveillance, the reasons behind it and information as to whom it has been shared with.

The first stage to discover what information is held on them on police databases has yielded results that veer from surprising to disturbing. Although the bulk of the records have still not been disclosed, the small fragments so far revealed contain ludicrous detail about their clothing and demeanour. Even relatives’ medical records and sinister observations about one plaintiff’s sexuality have been found on these secret databases.

There is no suggestion that those involved are known to the police for any criminal activity, leading to questions about the reason for holding so much information and its implications for civil liberties. The official purpose of the database in question is to monitor domestic extremists who pose a clear threat to public safety. It appears to have been expanded to document journalists who have covered protest and dissent as part of their professional work.

Through solicitors Bhatt Murphy, instructed by the NUJ, the six journalists will ask the court to instruct the Metropolitan Police to reveal the full extent of the surveillance, what has been done with the data, with whom it has been shared, and then for it to be destroyed.

The legal action is currently on hold while the police appeal a previous court ruling that their surveillance of peace activist and water colourist John Catt was unlawful. Judgement on the police appeal is expected early next year.

The present case being brought by the six members is not the first time that the police have been scrutinised over this and similar issues. Back in 2008-10 NUJ members called the police to account for unwarranted surveillance and harassment. Two films were made about the issue and can be viewed here and here. In the light of recent events a third film is now in production. The London Photographers Branch agreed to help fund it at our November branch meeting and encourages other NUJ and Trade Union branches to do the same.







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